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Les engagés in New France

The engagés were nothing more than indentured servants.

The Intendant of New France, Jean Talon, had ambitious plans for prosperous colony. Appointed Intendant of New France in 1665 the projects he launched gave new hope to the old pioneers, the Jesuit superior François Le Mercier and Marie de l'Incarnation, the founder of the Ursuline Convent.

François Le Mercier was very optimistic about New France's future:

"If the course of events in the future corresponds to that of the past two years, we will no longer recognize Canada, and shall see our forests changing into towns and provinces which may some day be not unlike those of France."

Monsieur Talon was enforcing the King's orders exactly. He had a covered market built in Québec as well as a brewery and a tannery. There was such a great number of animals in this country and these industries had never been attempted before in Canada, but if they succeeded they would greatly reduce the enormous expense of having everything brought over from France and they would provide the makings of a great country that, in time, would make the merchants rich according to Marie de l'Incarnation in some of her correspondence.

The colony needed workers in order to grow.

An indentured servant was bound to his employer for the duration of his contract which was usually three years. Pierre Boucher, who went to Canada as a young servant ("engagés), was now a merchant and a seigneur, looking for employees of his own in France.

"All poor people would be better off here than in France, provided they are not lazy. They will not lack for work and they will not be able to say, as they do in France, that they have to scrounge for a living because no one has work for them."

Most of the men who went to New France were "engagés or indentured servants. The "engagé's employer whether a farmer, a religious order, or a merchant, paid for their transportation from France.

Pierre Boucher, who knew that life was hard in the colony, suggested to the new comers to be prepared: "It would be a good thing for a man who wants to come to live here, to bring food to last a year or two. He should also buy herds of oxen for they are worth twice as much here as in France. Money is also worth more, a quarter again as much, a 15 sol coin is worth 20."

During the tenure of his contract, the "engagé could not become a citizen, get involved in the fur trade or marry. Some were servants, but the majority performed hard labour such as clearing land. He earned a paltry sum of 75 livres a year, with food, lodging and clothing deducted. After three years of toil, he usually only had the shirt on his back, a gun and his freedom. His labour could be bought and sold without his consent. In 1665, a quarter of men over the age of 15 who lived in New France were "engagés.

Between 1664 and 1671, about a thousand "engagés settled in New France but only half of them stayed once their contracts ended. The others returned to France, once they received their release. This document basically served as their passport to return home.

According to the contract, a runaway could be flogged in public, put in shackles, branded or hanged. But these harsh punishments were rarely enforced and for the most part the "engagés lived as part of the family.

In a letter to Colbert, Talon complained that their exodus threatened the collective future of the colony. "If things continue in this manner, the colony will not get stronger, despite the trouble you have taken to increase the population, many people have gone back this year, but a far greater number intend to go back next year by the ease with which they are given their notice."

Colbert's reply to him was thus: "His Majesty esteems it to be a notable disorder to which a solution must be found and to this effect has written (...) to (...) defend (...) any Frenchman returning to this Kingdom, if those who ask him permission do not have wife and children, and a considerable establishment in that country over there, then His Majesty esteems however, it is important that the French do not believe themselves to be held by force in that country..."

And what did the French do at the end of their indenture on the banks of the St. Lawrence? Nearly 15,000 French people came to Canada between Champlain's arrival in 1608 and the end of the 17th century. More than two thirds returned to France. Only 3,400 remained here. These would be the French pioneers of North America.

"There are a great number of poor folk in this country, and this is because when a family first settles here," recounted Mother Marie de l'Incarnation in a letter on October 29, 1665, "it takes them two or three years before they have enough to feed themselves, not to mention the clothing, furniture and a thousand and one little things necessary to maintain a proper household. But after these difficulties are past, they are able to live more comfortably, and if they manage their affairs well, they can, in time, become wealthy – or at least as wealthy as is possible in such a new country."


© Lucie LeBlanc Consentino
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